SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – World War Two
War movies took on a whole new realistic look with Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary World War Two feature Saving Private Ryan (1998). The opening 30 minutes or so was, quite possibly, the most harrowing footage in the history of mainline cinema to that time. Audiences are given a front row seat at the bloody landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and the view is certainly not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. I read that veterans of the battle were invited (with their wives) to attend a private showing. The ladies, in particular, were shocked by the ferocity of the fighting, unaware their husbands had encountered such appalling opposition that day. The vets themselves agreed that Spielberg had captured the essence of the nightmare that was Omaha Beach in those 30 or so minutes. The only thing missing, they said, was the smell of blood and burning flesh.
Spielberg setting up a scene in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
This movie depicts the sheer horror of modern warfare as no previous feature film had ever done. I have always felt that the opening should be made compulsory viewing for final year high school students as a deterrent to those wishing to make the military their career, but of course that will never happen. Governments need volunteers for the armed forces. They need young men (and women now, I suppose), with stars in their eyes and dreams of glory on the battlefield. They do not need pictures like this one scaring them off. Saving Private Ryan is a ground-breaking film, one that boasts a brilliant performance from America’s greatest male movie actor – Tom Hanks. How Robert Benigni (for Life is Beautiful) beat him for the Best Actor Oscar is a complete mystery to me (and many others). Shakespeare in Love knocked off Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, yet that does not surprise me. It is a terrific movie and bound to have attracted far more viewers than Spielberg’s gut-wrenching slice of reality.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) – World War Two
Schindler’s List is another Spielberg masterpiece, this one based on Thomas Keneally’s powerful book about the enigmatic Oskar Schindler, a German who risked his life to save hundreds of his Jewish workers from the death camps in Poland during the Second World War. Unlike Saving Private Ryan five years later, Spielberg would be justly rewarded with a Best Picture Academy Award for this one. The same, however, cannot be said for Ralph Fiennes. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his chilling portrayal of the evil Nazi Camp Commandant Amon Goeth and missed out. In my opinion, his performance is the most frightening, ‘edge of your seat’, portrayal by any actor in movie history, yet the Oscar went to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive, believe it or not! The Academy Awards really are a joke at times.
The brilliant Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List, much like Saving Private Ryan, has a number of scenes that are highly disturbing and difficult to watch; scenes made all the more disturbing because the incidents depicted actually happened in real life. This movie is a truly great piece of cinema, but it is not an enjoyable exercise to sit through. It is pretty much a history lesson, one that dwells for the most part on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Fortunately, it is also a testament to the heights to which a brave and compassionate man can aspire, regardless of the odds stacked against him, should he find the courage to do so.
SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) – World War Two
One of my favourite movies of all time. Since You Went Away (1944) is about an American family contending with the changes in their lifestyle brought about by World War Two and the absence of the family bread-winner who is overseas serving his country. That all sounds like a recipe for a couple of hours of flag-waving, punctuated by choruses of ‘God Bless America’, but it is actually nothing of kind. The writing and the performances are far too good for that. Claudette Colbert is perfect as the matriarch raising her two teen-aged daughters, who are played beautifully by Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. This was Shirley’s first ‘grown up role’. Well, not quite grown up, but not a cute little kid either.
The inimitable Agnes Moorehead in Since You Went Away (1944)
The other players in this home-front classic are equally memorable. Joseph Cotten as Lt. Tony Willett is all charm and integrity; Monty Woolley, as the boarder Colonel Smollett, blusters and complains on the outside, but is kind and decent underneath; and Agnes Moorehead is superbly reprehensible as Emily Hawkins, a selfish gossip and hoarder. Even Robert Walker is acceptable, and I have never thought much of him as an actor. Colbert, Woolley and Jones were all unsuccessfully nominated for their performances, as was the film for Best Picture. The screenplay was not even nominated. The spud-ordinary Going My Way won Best Screenplay and Best Picture. Sheesh!
SINK THE BISMARCK! (1960) – World War Two
This is the story of the British Navy and its efforts to find, trap and sink the German pocket battleship Bismarck in the early days of the Second World War. British star Kenneth More plays Captain Jonathan Shepard, the Admiralty’s Chief of Operations, who is given the task of determining the ship’s probable course, then arranging for it to be cornered and sunk. In the movie he uses his intuition and knowledge of the German commander of Bismarck to correctly deduce that the damaged vessel is going to make for the port of Brest and friendly waters. In reality, back in 1941, British codebreakers at Bletchley Park had cracked Enigma and were reading German messages, so they knew exactly what Bismarck’s plans were, but in 1960 when this movie was made, this information was still top secret and would not be made public until the 1970s. Consequently, the writers accepted the official story that Captain Shepard had been able to use his intuition to find the ship.
The British are masters at making this kind of movie. It was shot in the UK but distributed by 20th Century Fox. Kenneth More is ideal as Captain Shepard and is ably supported by the beautiful (and classy) Dana Wynter who portrays his assistant, WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis. Ironically, the very English Ms. Wynter was actually born Dagmar Winter in, of all places, Berlin, Germany. American singer Johnny Horton recorded a hit single, inspired by this picture and named for it, although you will not here it in the movie.